Alabama volleyball team set to succeed

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Kayla Montgomery

Stephanie Schleuder made her debut in 1974. She was fresh out of graduate school when she made the trek from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Tuscaloosa to become the first head coach of the brand new Alabama women’s volleyball team.

Fast forward 40 years, and the Alabama volleyball team is again making history as it excels to new heights and challenging past records under the leadership of fourth-year coach Ed Allen. The road to success hasn’t come without its challenges and was never certain, especially after a six-year discontinuation of the program threatened to alter the course of the sport.

When Schleuder received the call to found the program at Alabama and also to serve as the women’s basketball coach, she knew she was on the brink of something bigger than herself. For the first time in University history, the administration was making a substantial push to increase the prominence of women’s sports, bolstered by a $50,000 scholarship fund provided by Joe Namath.

The University, Schleuder said, was one of the first to offer athletic scholarships to females.

“They had teams before, but this was the first time that they had actually had a women’s athletic program,” she said. “I was just out of graduate school and packed all my belongings in my car and drove from Minneapolis to Alabama, and there I was.”

She was excited to be a part of the growing program at the Capstone, but the task in front of her was tremendous. She was, after all, coming to coach at the University of Alabama, where rich traditions preceded her arrival and set a precedent for all athletics programs university-wide.

“It was a daunting task. There’s no doubt about that,” she said. “Obviously, Alabama was a known quantity. People knew Bear Bryant, we have this reputation for athletic excellence in other sports, and we somewhat piggy-backed on top of that.”

With credit to high-caliber recruits, eager coaches and a desire to win, the program found itself propelled to national success only a short time after its inception, amassing 50-plus win seasons in the mid-1970s.

As the ‘80s came around, so did a job offer for Schleuder at the University of Minnesota, but she was not immediately sold on the offer which would take her to her home state. She had heard rumors that a women’s sports team would soon be cut from the University, and was afraid her departure would seal the fate for the young, successful program.

“There were rumors that they were thinking about dropping a women’s sport, and I went to the administration and said ‘I’ve been offered this job, but I won’t take it if there’s any chance that volleyball will be the sport that’s going to be dropped,’” she said.

In response, Schleuder said she was reassured by the program’s success that it would remain at Alabama after her departure, and she accepted the offer that would bring her home.

She continued to recruit and schedule for future seasons for the Crimson Tide before leaving for Minnesota, up until National Signing Day arrived on March 1, 1982. It was then she received word that the University of Alabama had discontinued its volleyball program, and the University declined to comment on the reason for program termination.

The next few months were a flurry of activity as Schleuder fought desperately to protect her athletes from the implications of the administration’s decision, a decision she called devastating for herself and her team. She busied herself with attempts to retain scholarships for her current players and helped to find homes for the ones set to sign with the Crimson Tide before heading North.

“I kind of went out in a blaze,” she recalled. “I didn’t go quietly. It was a very tumultuous time in a few months.”

Despite the end of her tenure at Alabama, Schleuder said she was proud of the program she helped create, but the pride stemmed mostly from appreciation for the athletes who made her job so enjoyable.

“I will always have a special place in my heart for Alabama, despite some of the things that happened,” she said. “It was a wonderful time for me and for our team, and I have really fond memories of that period.”

The Program Returns

It was 1988 when the program was revived at Alabama, a familiar face this time receiving the call to spearhead the reestablishment of the program.

Dorothy Franco-Reed, a former player under Schleuder, accepted the opportunity with open arms, returning to Tuscaloosa to revitalize a program she loved. Her passion for the program stemmed from the time she spent at the Capstone as a student-athlete, entering the University in 1976 on the cusp of Title IX legislation that granted her, and other female athletes, a scholarship to play collegiate athletics. During her time as a player, the team qualified each year for the national tournament.

“I will never ever forget having that opportunity to come on a scholarship to Alabama. It was an amazing experience,” she said. “That was the start, so I always felt very fortunate to be born in a time where I could experience those opportunities that were given to me and many other young female athletes.”

Before coming back to Alabama, Franco-Reed coached for four years under Schleuder at Minnesota before taking a role at Tulane. A phone call from then-gymnastics coach Sarah Patterson quickly changed her trajectory, and she was headed for Tuscaloosa once again.

“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” she said of receiving the offer. “That was music to my ears. It was like going back home again. Once I went to college at Alabama, I always considered it as my home. I couldn’t have asked for a greater gift.”

Her first years as coach of a virtually new program weren’t without struggle. Alabama opted to phase in scholarship allotments, Franco-Reed said, granting her four scholarships her first year as coach, while other teams had already reached their maximum allotment of 12 scholarships. Also, she took over her tenure mid-year, meaning top recruits were already taken by other SEC foes, including Florida and LSU, who both finished in the top four of the NCAA tournament in each of her first years at the Capstone.

The challenges weren’t enough to dampen her excitement, and she recruited a solid group of players to begin the program’s rebirth.

“I was just so happy to be there. I would have taken any struggle you gave us,” Franco-Reed said. “We brought in a group of kids who were the best crew we ever had. As the years went on, we were able to recruit heavier talent, but you couldn’t have asked for a better group. They watched that program grow, and we cherished that program together.”

The program continued to grow under the leadership of Franco-Reed with the team falling just short of the NCAA tournament her final year, which featured only 24 teams as opposed to the current 48. Her husband ultimately received a job offer from ESPN that drew the pair away from Tuscaloosa once again. However, her presence can still be found on the team, as her son Ty currently works with the program as a student assistant.

Now an educator back in her home state of Connecticut, Franco-Reed still follows the program closely and is excited to see the direction it’s headed. She also fondly remembers her time coaching at Alabama.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work,” she said. “But it’s your passion, that’s what you love to do, and the energy keeps you going because you’re so excited to see what the next day is going to bring. It’s constant excitement matched with constant fatigue, that’s what Division I coaching is. But it’s great.”

A New Day

Judy Green took control of the Crimson Tide following Franco-Reed, guiding the program for more than a decade and making three NCAA tournament appearances, before Allen finally took the reins in 2011.

He came to the University with an impressive resume, having held the title of winningest coach at each program he worked with, a legacy he hopes to continue at the Capstone. He brought with him a simple vision, he said, to excel.

“[The vision was] to elevate it to the level of all the other sports that are competing for national championships and SEC championships on a regular basis,” Allen said.

The program is certainly on the path to achieving his vision. Under his tenure as coach, the program has recorded several titles as “best since.” He earned the program’s first winning season in four years in 2012. In 2013, he guided the team to a 24-10 record and its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007. The season recorded the most wins for the Crimson Tide since 1995.

The vision hasn’t come easily, he said. Before the building process began, Allen had to first dismantle the program that existed when he took control, making sure all remaining components of the program were ready to proceed with his new vision of success for the team.

“The toughest challenge is getting rid of all of the people who don’t share similar goals,” he said. “It would have actually been easier to start a program from scratch than to take over a program you have to dismantle.”

Currently in his fourth year at the University, Allen has a team that shares his goals and has bought in whole-heartedly to the message of the team.

“The message is that we’re going to chase perfection, and in doing that, we’ll attain excellence on a regular basis,” Allen said. “There are no free rides, everyone has a job to be done, and you have to prove your worth on a daily and yearly basis for this program.”

His athletes are doing just that, with three receiving AVCA All-America honorable mention accolades. For the first time in program history, it received votes for the AVCA Coaches Poll, with 11 votes last week and 18 this week.

The success hasn’t escaped the former leaders of the program, like Franco-Reed, who said she is excited to see the heights the program will reach.

“I think Ed [Allen], the whole team and the University are going to reap the rewards of the efforts of what he is putting in,” she said. “They’ve made the commitment to this program.”